By Mike Gormley
Bernie Yeszin designed the famous Motown Records logo, and did lots of covers for the label in the '60s.
In fact, he was at the center of the industry back then, and did everything from playing poker with Marvin Gaye to letting an 11-year-old Stevie Wonder hang out in his office.
But he's fallen on hard times and now lives in a van, in a parking lot under a Ralph's grocery store in L.A. Why there? “I'm not leaving my neighborhood,” he says, adding that staying off the streets helps protect him.
Yeszin is now 71. He later transitioned from the music industry to television, and even won an Emmy, in 1990, for art direction on The Tracey Ullman Show.
But he hasn't been able to find work, and was even forced to pawn his Emmy, which was eventually sold by the pawn shop.
“It was part of me,” he says, “and now it's gone.” Still he keeps with him — in the 1990 GMC Suburban van he shares with his dog Daisy, an aging Golden Retriever — much of his memorabilia from over the years, including photos he took of The Supremes, whom he used to pick up after they had finished school for the day and take to local high school dances.
Originally from Detroit, he was an aspiring artist from the get-go, and at age 21 he stopped by the Motown Records house, unannounced. “I went in, met Berry Gordy and got a job in the art department,” he remembers. Within a few days the only other guy in the department was gone and Yeszin became the boss. “I didn't know a thing, really. I just had an eye.”
His first cover was for Martha and the Vandellas' Come and Get These Memories and his second was little Stevie Wonder's Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius, which brought Wonder to the world stage.
But eventually he got tired of doing album covers and went to Cal Arts film school, and for decades did set design for TV shows and movies of the week. “It was enough for me to have a house and a great life,” he says. But in-house art departments eventually got phased out, and so was he.
His next stop was Las Vegas, where he started training dogs, of all things, and working with at the Excalibur hotel in a dog act. Despite not studying the craft, “I just had a knack for working with dogs,” he says. He published a book and was even champion of Animal Planet show Who Let The Dogs Out last year. But none of it has been enough to make a living.
In 1995 he decided to follow his bliss and used his small pension to enroll in Art Center in Pasadena, where he learned painting technique. While has he sold some paintings — mainly to a friend from the music world — he has not been able to succeed in the art world.
But, he hasn't giving up. In fact, he recently surveyed the Santa Monica garage of actress Lisa Langlois, who was offering it to him as a studio. Unfortunately, he didn't find it quite right — not big enough, and lacking air conditioning and water.
So the search continues and the van still serves as home for Yeszin and Daisy. Just like when he was 21, this bright, effervescent personality has not given up hope. “There are people waiting for my paintings,” he says. “If I get a place to paint I know it will be successful. I can feel it.”